The gears that must mesh to create a community where innovation thrives

Culture, institutions, community members, and capital all play a part in whether or not a community fosters business startups. And they all could be represented as gears that work together and form an integral part of such communities. 

Ten Western Michigan University students traveled to Boulder, Colo.; Austin, Texas; Chicago, Detroit and Grand Rapids to learn about each of those communities as part of the Understanding Startup Communities Course offered through the Lee’s Honor College. They also went to Cassopolis to learn about Michigan companies to watch. 

They came back to Kalamazoo and presented to community members at a meeting at Starting Gate their thoughts on how the gears mesh and put forward an idea for an business incubator like those they saw on their travels. 

John Mueller, assistant professor of management at Western Michigan University, who teaches entrepreneurship, led the students in the cross-country visit as they explored the factors that drive a vibrant startup community.

Students reported that as they visited different communities they came to understand how important culture was in each of the communities they visited, though they initially did not recognize it as a vital part of the equation.

They found communities where risk taking was expected and accepted. 

The students also came to realize that business incubators and co-working spaces came with a social aspect, in that entrepreneurs could find others with whom they could collaborate and commiserate. Social events also were important for providing places people and ideas could “collide,” the students said.

In Boulder, meetings took place not only in the office, but out in nature. Boulder Open Coffee Club happens in the Boomtown Accelerator where members talk with one another.

They learned about Techstars, and how it empowers entrepreneurs to bring new technologies to market through mentorship and seed funding.

The startup investigation trip was timed over spring break so that students could experience a taste of South by Southwest in Austin. As the students said: “There were great opportunities for socialization and collaboration in the city of Austin. Although, we could be biased because we witnessed South by Southwest.”

Both communities share a quality of life that the WMU students described as an almost magical quality--a “stay factor.” They explained that in both Boulder and Austin they heard that students came to attend university and never left.

For Boulder, the mountains and outdoor activities in a city where there is 330 days of sunshine each year is a big draw. The city is clean and there are many opportunities to eat healthy food. Dogs are welcome everywhere and marijuana is legal. With a population of 100,000 the community is tight-knit, so businesses that might compete in other communities collaborate in Boulder.

In Austin, live music, good food and art all create an attractive culture for innovators. The people are friendly and sincere and the city is a haven for Texans who don’t fit in other parts of the state. Students said they were told the city is a speck of blue in a sea of red that is Texas. Though, the two political parties do cooperate in Austin.

When it came to diversity, the students found more in Austin than in Boulder, though they admitted the festival may have skewed that. They also found that beyond demographic diversity it is important to have a diversity of mindsets (which can be hard to achieve without demographic diversity). 

They also tried to determine whether it is possible for economic growth created by startups to take place without shoving out certain members of the community through gentrification. Those they talked to said they believed it was possible, but had not yet determined how it could be done.

The students looked at institutions such as universities and local governments and their roles in encouraging entrepreneurship. They also identified the role of large corporations: They start a culture of technology and provide the community with economic stability and a base for employment.

Community members also play a huge role, especially billionaires. Especially in Austin, these members of the community were described as approachable and willing to share their expertise and funds.

Both Austin and Boulder are also filled with entrepreneurs and lifestyle businesses (those that allow their founders to maintain a certain income level and particular lifestyle). They found food trucks in Austin and came to appreciate those trucks in Kalamazoo.

The students learned that 80 percent of the capital invested in Boulder comes from outside the city. They found out about investors who only put money into businesses they know about and which they feel passionate about. Investors care about where hey are putting their money and they want it to help entrepreneurs and the community.

“People making connections opened up capital,” said Elyse Hogan, one of the 10 students in the course.

Innovation is flourishing in Detroit because of the influx of people who want to make a difference there. 

In Grand Rapids they learned of the changes taking place in Start Garden.

Inspired by their visit to Boulder, students envisioned a co-working space for Kalamazoo. It would have a downtown location, open workspace, lounges, a kitchen, ping pong tables, conference rooms and lockers. Mentors with office hours, workshops and classes all could help entrepreneurs succeed. 

They even had a name for the building--Dash. In a local cemetery they were shown head stones with dates that represent beginnings and endings, but learned what matters most is the dash between those years, as it represents how one spends his or her life.

As students rolled out their co-working space idea, several members of the audience spoke up saying that they are at work on similar plans. They also said that people may be looking for different kinds of spaces and it is likely there will be room for different kinds of incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces.

Students said it would be helpful for them to work with those who are already at work on such a project and as the meeting broke up connections were being made for further collaborations.

Kathy Jennings is managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave Media. She is a freelance editor and writer.

Editor’s note: Thanks to the students of HNRS 2900 for sharing their Framework of Startup Communities used as reference in this story. Students who participated in the class were: Ethan Archer, Eric Carlo, Simbarashe Chirara, Elyse Hogan, Alexi Lenderman, Josie Marshall, Kailin Marshall, Mackenzie McGuckin, Jill Pickett, and Adam Roth.